Pitt braces for diversified Navy attack
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Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett is facing such a tough assignment this week even Mike Tomlin felt a little sympathetic.
The two coaches were talking at the South Side training facility, and Tomlin, who faced Navy as a wide receiver at William & Mary in 1991, asked Bennett if the Midshipmen were still running a certain play.
"I said 'Yes, they are,'" Bennett said. "He said, 'Oh man.' He remembered it from his days."
Now it's Bennett's problem. The longtime coordinator is spending a lot of restless nights while preparing for Navy's triple-option attack that is augmented this year by a quarterback who does more than run.
"You don't sleep," Bennett said.
Junior quarterback Ricky Dobbs is the best passer at the Naval Academy in many years and gives opposing defenses one more thing to worry about. The 6-1, 198-pound Georgian passed for 156 yards and accounted for four touchdowns in Navy's near-miss at Ohio State in the opener. For the season, he is 14 of 21 for 259 yards and two touchdowns for the Midshipmen (1-1), who play Pitt (2-0) at 6 p.m. Saturday at Heinz Field.
"We have to be prepared," said senior middle linebacker Adam Gunn, tied for second in the nation with five sacks. "Dobbs is a passing threat."
Make no mistake, the Midshipmen remain a run-first team. They have led the nation in rushing each of the past four seasons and attempted an NCAA-low 93 passes last season. They ran the ball 69 times for 290 yards - and attempted eight passes -- in the 32-14 victory over Louisiana Tech last week. But Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, who joked before the season that "we aren't going to turn into Texas Tech," is using Dobbs' arm to diversify an offense that typically averages about four completions a game.
"Ricky allows us to throw the ball more," Niumatalolo said. "He allows us to keep people honest. His passing ability allows us to do things in the passing game we haven't done in the past."
Like all Navy quarterbacks, Dobbs is a productive runner in the deception-based attack. He is second on the team with 130 yards along with a team-high four touchdowns on 43 carries. He is athletic enough to have been offered a scholarship to play wide receiver at Georgia Tech before deciding on the Naval Academy.
Navy picks its spots to pass, and it usually works. Dobbs attempted only 16 passes last season as a backup but averaged 24 yards on his nine completions. His role is greatly expanded this year.
"He is without question a more accurate thrower than what they've had at that position," Bennett said. "He's an accurate guy."
Pitt thwarted Navy's ground game last year, holding the Midshipmen to a respectable 194 yards - 119 below their average -- on 47 carries in a 42-21 victory. Through the air, Navy managed only four completions on eight attempts for 57 yards.
The previous year, the Midshipmen rolled up 497 total yards, including 331 on the ground, in a 48-45 victory over the Panthers at Heinz Field.
So, while the Panthers spent hours of practice working on Navy's triple-option, they also had to devote some time to pass defense.
"We know the importance of defending the pass," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "I don't know how we're going to play it, but if they hit some passes on us, it's not going to be because they surprised us."
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